I listened to Stephen Covey’s iconic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People on audio about a decade ago, and I remember damn near nothing about it. However, one of the concepts from that book that hit me pretty hard was the difference between important and urgent. And because it has come up with several of my clients recently, I decided I’d put something out on the topic.
Also, I recently saw a tweet from Janel Comeau @VeryBadLlama saying, “Hey, sorry I missed your text. I am processing a non-stop 24/7 onslaught of information with a brain designed to eat berries in a cave.” So yeah, I think now is the time for me to publish this article.
Important vs. Urgent
The word important means “Of great significance or value; likely to have a profound effect on success, survival, or well-being.” The word urgent, on the other hand, is defined as “Requiring immediate action or attention.” It’s easy to conflate the two, especially because they do overlap at times. But as the world is flooded with more and more options, information, responsibilities, demands, and distractions, I believe the happiest and most successful among us will be those who can discern the important from the urgent and respond accordingly.
I scribbled out a 2×2 matrix on a piece of paper to share with a client the other day. The two rows were titled “Urgent” and “Not Urgent,” while the columns were labeled “Important” and “Not Important.” At each of the four intersections, I jotted a couple words to describe the nature of that permutation.
But like I said, this idea started to show up with other clients, and it felt like I was being challenged to present Covey’s work through a trauma-informed, psychological perspective.
Important but Not Urgent (Q1)
Planning and executing things that are important to you at a time you’ve decided to do them is a sign of strong boundaries (with yourself, others, time, money, energy, and resources). It means you are clear on your values and priorities and are intentionally acting in alignment with them. It’s a sign of mindful and purposeful living.
This requires the well-being and emotional maturity of healthy self-interest, self-acceptance, self-compassion, self-protection, self-care, self-expression, self-advocacy, self-esteem, self-confidence, agency, responsibility, initiative, willpower, and motivation.
Here are your daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly routines, systems, and habits that support your physical, mental, emotional, financial, social, and spiritual health. They are the structure of a well-built life.
It’s difficult to be in this quadrant if the environment of your life is disordered and chaotic, if you lack skills, resources, support, and bandwidth (i.e., living in survival mode).
This is the quadrant of health, growth, and restoration, being your best self, and truly living. Here is where you cultivate safety and security.
Important and Urgent (Q2)
When you or a loved one is sick or injured, when a car breaks down, or a water pipe starts leaking in your home, these are moments when your regularly scheduled plans for life are interrupted, but for good reason.
When you have the wherewithal and presence of mind to be flexible and problem-solve when necessary and important to do so, you are probably living a good life. But only if these moments are few and far between.
However, if you are urgently doing important things on a daily basis, you may be living in a frantic state of stress and survival mode. Perhaps you lack the skills, resources, support, and bandwidth to escape this state of being. Maybe you’re surrounded by incompetent assholes or your life is completely unstructured. Could also be that trauma has wired your nervous system to experience ALL stimuli as both urgent and important.
Whatever the case, spending too much time in this quadrant is not a good sign and usually points to a lack of boundaries and proactive self-care, which certainly may be the result of unresolved trauma.
Occasional visits to this quadrant are healthy and appropriate. Spending lots of time here is symptomatic of underlying issues and likely a cause of various downstream effects that form a negative feedback loop of self-perpetuating urgency.
Not Important but Urgent (Q3)
Sure, some unimportant things may grab our attention from time to time (literally the goal of all sales and marketing), and that’s no big deal. But it’s problematic when you spend an exorbitant amount of time dealing with other people’s problems, cleaning up their messes, tippy-toeing around their feelings, pandering, perfecting, performing, managing, martyring, “mothering” (people who are not your children), catering, offering unsolicited advice, doing shit no one asked you to do, over-booking and over-extending yourself, indulging in various compulsive activities and addictions, etc. This all points to unclear boundaries, values, and priorities, and sometimes significant mental health challenges.
Unresolved trauma often creates an inflated sense of urgency across the board. But also, we live in a world completely inundated with irrelevant bullshit via mail, email, social media, mass media, ads, notifications, news, entertainment, gossip, clickbait, scams, scandals, trends, consumerism, and all manner of unyielding noise and distraction. If you have no mechanism for separating the essential from nonessential in your life, you’re liable to be tossed about indefinitely in the angry seas of unrelenting demands for your attention.
A false sense of urgency attached to unimportant tasks is also quite characteristic of both substance and process addictions of all types, which invariably have some trauma at their core (hence the dissociating and self-medicating). If you find yourself in this quadrant more often than you’d like, run that past a mental health professional posthaste.
Not Important and Not Urgent (Q4)
Doing things that have no apparent urgency or importance can certainly fall into the category of harmless leisure activities — watching funny cat videos, scrolling social media, or whatev. None of the four quadrants are inherently bad, especially in moderation.
However, this is the place where overwhelm, fear, immobilization, dissociation, distraction, depression, escape, numbing, and aimless floundering set up camp. So if you’re filling your days with random shit that doesn’t matter to literally anyone, that may be cause for alarm.
This quadrant is largely furnished with apathy, melancholy, painful regrets, and unlived life. Don’t get too comfy around here and waste away in the beanbag chair of indifference watching QVC in a catatonic stupor.
What Does Healthy Look Like?
I just made this whole thing up, so I don’t have any empirical data or specific research to support it. But I believe a reasonable SWAG (Scientific Wild Ass Guess) would be to spend about 70% of your time in the “Important but Not Urgent” quadrant and about 10% of your time in each of the remaining three.
Obviously, these percentages could vary greatly from person to person based on what they deem important or urgent as well as what they value and prioritize in life. Also, very few people know the difference between their fundamental human needs and a wheel of cheddar. So it’s only natural that folks have this whole matrix ass-backwards most of the time. But I think it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on where you spend most of your time each day. It may be a useful barometer for your maturity and mental health.
If you spend the majority of your time in quadrant one, peacefully attending to the things that align with your values and priorities, I’d say you’re probably adulting pretty good. Well done.
If you find yourself in quadrant two quite frequently, it’s probably worth auditing your habits, routines, values, and boundaries to see why you’re experiencing so many “important emergencies” on a regular basis. That sounds like a stressful way to live, and I’m willing to bet you’ve got other options.
If you hang out in quadrant three often, you’re probably no stranger to anxiety and overwhelm. Q3 often feels like powerlessness and panic — for sure an unsatisfying and unsustainable way to live. Please get help.
If you’re in quadrant four all the time, you may be deeply depressed, dissociated, numb, or self-medicating heavily. Even if you’re having fun amusing yourself to death, I recommend talking to someone.
The Direction of Causality
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that how you spend your time is responsible for your mental health challenges; on the contrary, it’s more likely that your mental health challenges are responsible for how you spend your time.
Obviously, better time management isn’t the solution to codependency, addiction, childhood trauma, and toxic shame.
But understanding where you fit into this matrix could tell you a lot about how you’re coping with those things.
*This article contains Amazon affiliate links to the books mentioned